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The Umatilla tribe is one of three Native American tribes, along with the Cayuse and Walla Walla, which live on the Umatilla Indiana Reservation in the state of Oregon in the United States. The Umatilla’s traditional homeland includes the Columbia River Plateau in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. The tribes came to the reservation in 1855 under provisions of a treaty with the U.S. government. In 1949, the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla formed a single tribal government. Today there are more than 2,800 members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
The Umatilla tribe referred to the Columbia as the Big River and historically shared it with several other indigenous groups of people, including those with whom they now form the Confederated Tribes. The three tribes shared the Sahaptin language, though there were distinct dialects. The Umatilla tribe lived on both sides of the Big River and had family, trade, and economic relationships with the other tribes along the waterway.
Only within the first decade of the 21st century have the people of the Umatilla tribe moved away from the nomadic lifestyle that included traveling to hunting and fishing camps in a yearly cycle. The traditional foods of the Umatilla tribe were salmon, roots, and deer. Living in longhouses, the tribe’s tent type shelter could be up to 80 feet (24 m) long. Horses were introduced to the tribe in the 1700s, and the people had large herds that were used to make their constant travels easier.
The families of the Umatilla tribe were extended and often had aunts, grandparents, and cousins all living in one home or band. Men were primarily responsible for hunting, making weapons and tools, and caring for the horses. Women were responsible for cooking, picking berries, and making clothing. Women also had responsibility for setting up and taking down the longhouses when the people moved.
Drumming and singing are an integral part of the religious and ceremonial aspects of the Umatilla tribe’s culture. Beads and porcupine quills were used in decorations. The history of the tribe was passed from generation to generation in song or storytelling. Most often the grandmother of a particular band was charged with the storytelling responsibility.
Today, the Umatilla tribe uses the longhouse solely for ceremonies and celebrations. The traditional language has been mostly lost, although there is a resurgence of interest in teaching it to the young people. The traditional extended family isn’t common on the reservation, and most family units are nuclear in structure.